The Pear Tart to Mandorle!

Sultry September has arrived with a slight coolness about her & although the mornings are a little chilly now, the sunrises are just as spectacular.  Getting up early means I see some amazing sunrises & Autumn never fails to deliver.  An array of moody clouds smooched across the sky this morning, kissing the rooftops as it gave way to the sunshine before we’d finished breakfast.  The garden looks prettily overgrown at the moment, all luscious long grass, wispy branches & a scattering of jewel-coloured blackberries on the hedgerows, contrasting with their dark green background.  They are happily growing at a rapid rate, replacing the ones that have already been plucked & packed in a pie with sweet sliced apples & cinnamon sugar.

Pastry plays a huge part of Autumnal food, mostly I think due to the fabulous produce that’s been growing all year & let’s face it, we all like a good fruit pie!  Although a slightly stodgy pie is very welcome at this time of year, sometimes we like something a little lighter but just as indulgent.  On one of my recent shopping trips to our local shops, there were shelves stacked with punnets of pears.  They looked so beautiful & fresh, with pale juniper green skins & a smattering of gold around the bottom.  Obviously, I had to buy some & starting thinking of how to do them some justice in a lighter pie, recipe calculating in my head as usual.  By the time I got to the checkout a few minutes later, I’d packed my basket with a selection of ingredients & headed home excitedly to start my next creation.

The filling would have included single cream, however there was a slight incident.  Upon opening the fridge, the cream pot leapt from the top shelf, unceremoniously smacking into the floor & spectacularly showering me & everything in it’s path.  Cue a huge clean up operation & a slight delay in my creation.  When things like this happen, I tend to have a look around to see what I can replace it with, rather than hit the shops again & I had some lovely over-ripe bananas that were the perfect replacement!   My Pear & Almond Tart (Crostata di Pere e Mandorle) is a simple but pretty dessert, easy to make & the addition of the dark chocolate makes it deliciously decadent.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Filling:
4 ripe Pears, peeled & cored
125g Ground Almonds
50g Plain Flour
3 large Eggs
100g Sugar
1 ripe Banana, peeled (if you’re weighing it, about 90g with skin on)
1-2 tablespoons Semi-Skimmed Milk
100g Dark Chocolate (the stuff you eat, not cooking chocolate!)
Quarter teaspoon Vanilla Extract

For the Pastry:
175g Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out & your tin)
60g Salted Butter (plus extra for preparing your tin)
60g Sugar
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Cold Water
A little Orange or Lemon Zest (a couple of teaspoons should do)
Ceramic Baking Beans* & greaseproof paper for baking blind
Icing Sugar (approx 25g), for dusting

[*If you don’t have any baking beans, just use dried pasta like fusilli instead – when cooled, pop in a jar for future baking]

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 170*C & prepare your tin.

Smudge a little butter around the inside of a 10 inch loose-bottomed pie or flan tin, making sure you get it into all the edges.  Tip in a little flour & shake it all around to cover the butter, tapping the tin onto the worktop where you will be rolling out your pastry.  If you don’t have a loose-bottomed tin, when you’ve done the above stage, criss-cross long strips of greaseproof paper in the tin (make sure they go well over the edge of your tin so you can use them to lift your tart out after baking).  Set the tin aside.

Now to make the pastry!  Tip the flour & sugar into a mixing bowl, giving it a thorough stir.

Add the butter pieces to the bowl & using your fingertips, rub in the butter until everything resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Add the lemon or orange zest, mixing thoroughly.

Beat the egg in a cup & then add to the butter & flour rubble in the bowl.  Stir it well with a knife until it starts to come together into a ball, adding just a dribble of the cold water at a time until it forms a lovely soft dough.

Turn your dough ball onto a lightly floured worktop & give it a quick knead to smooth it out.  Add a little more flour to your work surface as you need it, but don’t over do it (otherwise your pastry will taste like cardboard).

Roll out your pastry to a couple of inches larger than the pie tin.  Using your rolling pin, flop the pastry over onto it & carefully drape it over your pie tin, so it reaches all the inside edges.

Push your pastry gently into all the edges of the tin, either using your fingertips or the end of a rolling pin (it’s smooth, so won’t tear your pastry).

Leave a little lip of pastry on the edge of the tin & trim off the excess – keep this for the decorations.

Take a piece of greaseproof paper, a couple of inches bigger than your tin & screw it up.  Unravel it & shape it to the inside of your pastry tin, making sure it covers the edges of your pastry to protect them.  Tip in the baking beans & bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the edges are just starting to turn golden.

Remove your tin from the oven & put on a cooling rack.  Leave the greaseproof paper & baking beans in place for at least 5 minutes (they will be hotter than the sun), then lift them out on the greaseproof paper & put in a heatproof bowl or similar to cool.

Now to make the filling!  Take the pears & halve them.  Use a teaspoon to scoop out the core.  Slice each half into fine, frond-like fingers.  Place one half in the pastry case, rounded side up & gently press to fan them out.  Add the next pear half & repeat, making sure each is nicely spaced apart.

Scatter the chocolate pieces all over the pears evenly.

Mash the soft banana in a bowl with a tablespoon of the milk, until you get a yoghurty thick liquid.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs & sugar together until it resembles a light cream coloured foam.

Add the banana & milk mixture, giving everything a good stir until fully incorporated.

Stir the ground almonds & flour together in a separate bowl, then fold into the wet ingredients until blended thoroughly.

Pour all over the chocolate covered pears evenly – don’t overfill the tin, as this doesn’t rise so it will just ooze out everywhere.

Bake in the lower part of the oven for about 35 minutes, until golden on top & slightly firm to the touch.  Poke a spaghetti stem in the middle & if it comes out clean, it’s cooked.  If not, pop it back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so.

Remove & put on a cooling rack to rest.  Once cool, trim off the pastry edge until level with the pie tin.  Set aside while you make the decorations.

Line a baking tin with greaseproof paper (this will make it easier to remove all the tiny pastry pieces later & it also means no washing up).

Dust your work top with flour & roll out the leftover pastry.  Using whatever cutters you have, cut out pretty shapes.  No cutters?  No problem!  Got a jar of herbs?  Take the top off & give it a wipe to remove any herbs (put the jar where you won’t knock it over).  Use the top to cut out small circles of pastry, then cut them in half & shape the flat edge slightly by pressing it gently out in the middle with your finger, so it looks like a leaf.

For flowers, you need to get a bit more creative – roll pastry into a few tiny balls, about 5mm.  Place one in the middle with five around the outside, then press with fingers to join together & form a flower.

Place your pastry leaves & flowers onto the paper lined tin & dust very lightly with a little bit of the icing sugar – put a bit of the sugar on the end of a teaspoon & tap into a tea strainer to get a fine dust.  This gives them a crispness & makes them nicer to handle when placing them on your tart.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 8-10 minutes until golden.

Lift the paper up & place on a cooling rack until completely cool.

Transfer your pie onto a serving plate, ready to adorn with your pastry foliage.

Dip a clean finger in cold water & dab a little on the back of each leaf & flower, placing them at intervals around the edge of the tart.  This is your masterpiece, so place them in any fashion you like.

Once you’re happy with your decorating skills, simply dust lightly with the rest of the icing sugar.  Use the tea strainer method I mentioned before.  It should be lightly dredged, not drenched!

Serve!  Lightly luscious & very lovely, simply cut into delicate slices & eat as it comes, or add a spoonful of slightly softened vanilla ice-cream.   I can’t tell you whether or not it freezes, as it only lasted until the next morning & the remaining slices were duly gifted to some very hard-working workmen (sharing the pastry!).  This pretty pear-filled pastry will look beautiful on an afternoon tea table or as a sumptuous treat after Sunday lunch.   So next time you fancy a fruity dessert, try my Pear Tart to Mandorle!  Stay hungry! 😉  Aimee x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kick Start Your Tarts!

Here we are in the middle of a perfect July & let’s face it, Summer has been a long time coming!  Due to the magnificent mini-heatwave we’re having, all the pretty pots of plants are sprouting with lots of lovely flowers & fruit.  Sitting on the patio having coffee early in the morning is one of the best feelings, just relaxing & starting the day with a little sunshine.

Although I love rich, comforting food as much as anyone, it’s time to lighten up & let loose with the luscious array of amazing produce available to us right now.  One of the best things about Summertime is that we have a rainbow of fabulous fruits & vegetables coming into season, all ready to inspire us into cooking something fresh & exciting.  Bright berries & vivid vegetables to fill you with inner sunshine, giving you a well-deserved boost after being wrapped in woolly pullys for so long (that’s sweaters if you don’t know).

Food shopping is part of the anticipation of cooking & I shop like a butterfly, flitting from shelf to shelf, selecting colourful choices & deciding what to transform them into as I go (most people have a list, I have a recipe agenda in my head).  Thanks to the temptation of my local shops, I recently stocked up on some beautifully fragrant fruits & vegetables, perfect for pairing with pastry!  Forget those overloaded, soggy-bottomed, smudgy layered mouthfuls of the past (that’s where they should stay).  Savoury or sweet, tarts should be sumptuously satisfying & stuffed with just enough filling to keep you happy.

Now just to clarify, a fruit tart should be a fruit tart & not a hidden layer of custard or crème patissière under a pile of fruit!  I’m not a fan of custard & especially surprise custard!  As a child, I remember excitedly biting into a sweet, strawberry laden pastry, only to get a mouthful of cold custard (it didn’t end well).  An attentive boyfriend in my early 20s used to bring me a strawberry tart for our mid-morning coffee breaks & would always ensure they were custard-free, so I didn’t have to relive the horror.  Obviously, I make sure my own home-baked versions are definitely free of custard too.

This particular recipe is for a delectable apricot tart called Crostata di Albecocche, which is bursting with plump, peachy-blush tinted apricots.  Tinned apricots are beautiful too, but there’s something spectacular about the flavour of fresh ones!  They taste of Summer for me, all golden glorious sunshine wrapped in a soft velvet skin, delicately perched on a pastry blanket.  This tart is great as a tea-time treat or as a relaxed dinner party dessert, just add great company.    Ready to get baking?  Aprons on, hands washed!

What you need:

For the filling:
1 punnet of fresh Apricots
1 jar of Apricot Conserve or Jam (use a nice thick jam for this recipe)

For the pastry:
12oz Self-Raising Flour, plus extra for rolling out
4oz Vanilla Sugar (stick a vanilla pod in a jar of sugar & leave for a couple of hours or overnight, then you’ve got vanilla sugar)
4oz Salted Butter (plus a little extra melted for lining your tin)
2 large Eggs
Zest of an Unwaxed Orange & Lemon (optional, but very nice)
2 teaspoons of Ground Almonds
2 tablespoons Milk (for brushing pastry with)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

Prepare your tin.  You don’t need a fancy pie tin for this – I use a pizza tin, but you can use a loose bottomed one if you like.  Brush the inside & outer lip of the tin with melted butter (you can use your fingers for this too, whatever you find easiest).  Sprinkle with a little flour & shake it all around the tin, tipping out the excess onto your worktop.

At this point, you can always add a disc of greaseproof paper in the bottom (or criss-cross a couple of long strips of greaseproof paper & hang over the edges by a couple of inches).  I’ve baked this tart so many times over the years, both with & without greaseproof, so it’s up to you if you want to add this extra lining.

Sprinkle with the ground almonds & ensure the bottom of the tin is completely covered.

Now to make the pastry!  Into a large mixing bowl, add all the pastry ingredients together – the flour, eggs, sugar, butter & some zest.  Get your hands in & squish everything together to form a silky soft ball of pastry.

Dust the worktop & your rolling pin with a little flour (dust, not drench!), cut off two thirds of the pastry & roll out carefully, gently lifting & turning it then rolling again, until about half a centimetre thick & slightly bigger than your tin.  Dust more flour underneath as you go, so that it doesn’t stick.  If it’s too moist, roll it up & reshape, then start again.  Because the weather is warm, you might experience this – don’t worry, it will be fine (just go steady with the flour dusting, as you don’t want to use too much or it will alter the recipe & not in a good way!).

Lay the pastry carefully over your rolling pin & slide the tin underneath the pastry, laying it loosely onto the tin.  Push gently into the edges of the tin, being careful not to poke your fingers through.  Trim the edges off the pastry base & put back in the bowl (you’ll need these for decoration later).

Wash the apricots in cold water & gently pat dry.  Run a paring knife along the natural line around the middle of each fruit, then twist as you pull them apart (the riper the fruit, the easier this is).  The stone/pit will stick in one side, so just prise it out with your fingers & discard.  Continue until you have stoned all your fruit.

Cut each half apricot into half again, so you have apricot quarters & leave to one side.

Spread the jam gently all over the pastry case & then start adding your apricots in a pretty pattern, until the base is completely covered.

Now to decorate the top.  Take the leftover pastry & roll out into about half a centimetre thick.

Cut into strips about the same size – if you’ve got a pizza or ravioli cutter, use this & make life easier for yourself.

Take a pastry strip & pinch or twist it carefully, so you don’t break it, then lay it across the middle of the tart.  Brush the ends with a little milk & attach to the edge of the pastry base.

Do the rest of the strips in the same way, then do the same with more strips going over the top.

Gently brush a little milk on all the pastry edges & place on a baking tray in the centre of the oven for about 25 minutes, turning halfway through cooking.

Once the pastry has turned lightly golden & puffed up, the tart should be ready.

Remove from the oven & place the tin on a cooling rack to rest until thoroughly cooled (you don’t want to eat it hot, it will be like lava).

 

Once cooled, serve generous slices with a splodge of silky smooth cream – whether clotted, whipped, poured or iced, they all work well with this dessert (although clotted is my fave).

If there is any left, wrap in greaseproof paper & take it to work for a little treat the next day (probably best not to tell anyone at the office though, or it might evaporate).

This fabulous fruit-filled pastry can be made a few hours in advance & stored in the fridge on a serving plate until dinner (slide a pallet knife under & gently lift it out of the tin).  I can’t tell you if it freezes or not, because none has ever lasted that long, but I have frozen the pastry before & it always comes out perfectly.

So next time you see a punnet of peachy petite apricots, turn them into something special & kick start your tastebuds with this tasty apricot tart!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sea of Strawberries

There is something heavenly about the heady fragrance of fresh, ripe juicy strawberries that always makes me think of Summer.  When my son was young, we would spend many a sunny afternoon in a strawberry field, gently plucking plump berries from their leafy beds & enjoying their tantalising fragrance on the way home, eagerly looking forward to devouring them!

Now we all know they go very well sandwiched in a scone with jam & cream (if you don’t, you’re missing out), so I like to include these beautiful berries in other delights too.

For a quick impromptu dessert (unexpected guests will love this), whip up a fluffy, fat-free sponge & layer between thinly sliced strawberries & piped cream.  It looks like you’ve spent all afternoon baking, but actually takes about 20 minutes from start to finish & most of that time is spent on the assembly!   Dust it with icing sugar & if you really want to make it look extra fancy, make a pattern in the sugar with a hot metal skewer across the top (wear an oven glove though – the scent of burning fingers is never attractive).

Then there is the fabulous “Fraggle Tart” from one of my favourite Italian cookbooks – my family call it this because the Italian name is crostata di mandorle e fragoline (please note, no fraggles were harmed in the making of this treat).  Of course, the pastry has to be homemade with soft butter, eggs, sugar & flour – if you’re going to do these beauties justice, have a go at making your own.  I’ve used various types of flour, even wholemeal once as you can see, but if I’m honest I prefer plain.  

Another favourite of mine are strawberry jam tarts – I have my own take on these jammy little pastry cups & this is for those over-ripened fruits, the slightly squishy, sad looking ones that have been living in your fridge for a few days & need eating.  Put a spoonful of the squished berries in the bottom of pastry cases, spoon a little warm, seedless jam over them (only half fill, as jam tends to grow), then bake. Once cooled, just add a swirl of soft cream & a sprig of mint!  I try to keep a few in an airtight container for the next day, but they somehow evaporate …. !

However you decide to honour the strawberry, I hope I’ve inspired you to do more than just chuck them in a bowl with some sugar on.  A x